Being obese isn’t good for our health – this we know. Healthy lifestyle campaigns have always emphasised the need to keep our weight within an acceptable range, and for good reason. However, weight-loss isn’t isn't a one-flavour dish; there are plenty of ways to achieve this goal. Consequently, more is never always better. When it comes to weight-loss, having too much go too fast can constitute a legitimate health risk.
To say that extreme weight-loss isn’t good would be an understatement. Rather, it’s downright dangerous for your body! Extreme weight-loss is defined as a loss of more than 1kg a week for a sustained period. Under such circumstances, your body is unlikely to be able to keep up and noticeable symptoms are bound to appear. Some may seem harmless on the surface, like minor hair-loss or feeling cold more frequently. But other effects can be very damaging to your physical and mental health in the long run.
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The 5 most severe consequences of extreme weight-loss
1. Loss of muscle mass
When you lose weight, it’s not just fat that you lose but muscle as well. A loss in muscle mass often comes with decreasing metabolism rate, which further destabilises the fat-to-muscle ratio. Weaker muscles translate to more inconvenience in day-to-day activities like carrying heavy groceries or climbing the stairs. Even if the number on the weighing scale ends up looking nicer, your quality of life may not be as rosy.
2. Imbalance of electrolytes
Many of our bodily functions are regulated by naturally occurring elements. Any imbalance to the proportion of these elements could be potentially dangerous and may cause conditions such as seizures and arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats). Electrolytes in particular are critical to cellular function and integrity. If the latter were to break down, it wouldn't be long before the rest of the body follows suit.
3. Nutritional deficiencies
Extreme weight-loss deprives your body of the essential nutrients that are necessary for healthy function. Furthermore, deficiencies in certain nutrients like vitamin D and calcium can lead to an increased risk of developing certain health conditions or predispose you to injury. One such example of a disease associated with nutritional deficiency is anaemia, which is characterised by feelings of weakness and fainting spells and can occur when you your intake of iron is insufficient.
When gallstones form, severe pain is experienced along with indigestion. They are formed when digestive juices in the gallbladder aren’t released because of a lack of food to digest. These juices then harden inside the gallbladder and can block the opening, causing indigestion which leads to further pain and discomfort.
5. Drastic drop in energy levels
Consuming insufficient calories or expending too many of them will definitely lead to adverse effects on your energy levels. Apart from feeling physically tired, your cognitive functions may take a hit as well as your productivity. Your mood can also be affected – drastic weight-loss is often accompanied with constant feelings of irritation.
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Sometimes, unusual weight-loss can occur even when you aren’t on a diet. In cases of prolonged weight-loss where more than 10% of your body weight is lost over a period of 6 months, there is often a more serious underlying medical issue that requires attention.
Physical conditions associated with unusual weight loss
1. Thyroid-related issues
An over-active thyroid can cause rapid weight loss, despite causing constant feelings of hunger. Hyperthyroidism results in the production of excessive amounts of thyroxine, which can push your body's metabolism past its limits.
2. Rheumatoid arthritis
How do inflammatory conditions affect your weight? The more identifiable, obvious symptom is a sharp decrease in appetite which could be due to an infection. The more insidious reason is that inflammation in the gut affects how nutrients are absorbed and lead to cases of malnutrition.
3. Gut conditions
Apart from inflammation, other gut-related diseases such as coeliac disease affect your body’s ability to absorb nutrients from the food you consume. A dysfunctional gut can lead to diarrhoea and vomiting, which dehydrates your body and makes you lose more weight.
Inflammation and absorption issues could be caused by tumours in the colon and bowels, which affect appetite and how your body processes and absorbs food. With cancer, abnormal cell growth leads to the healthy cells being gradually replaced, causing the “wasting away” process that is common with cancer patients.
Diabetics lose a lot of water because their bodies can’t absorb glucose as effectively, which is why people with diabetes often feel thirsty and urinate more frequently. Muscular atrophy is another common side effect of diabetes – another mechanism of drastic weight-loss.
6. Clinical depression
Depression is often accompanied by a loss of appetite which can lead to weight-loss. Such cases are harder to identify because physical ailments often go unnoticed when they occur in the shadow of psychological issues.
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Whether the reason for extreme weight loss is diet-related or medical, practicing proper nutrition can go a long way towards uncovering a remedy. While the situation may be significantly more complicated when a medical condition is involved, addressing diet-related incidences of extreme weight-loss can be a straightforward affair. The key thing to bear in mind is to take things slow with your caloric deficits and not forego general healthy-eating principles.
How to eat healthily without going on a diet
• Eat less refined carbohydrates
Modern dieting solutions often emphasise cutting carbohydrates out of your daily meals, but this isn't set in stone. Keep an adequate amount of carbohydrates in your nutrition plan is a good idea if you're active but make sure to prioritise complex options and minimise your intake of refined carbohydrates, which don’t contain nearly as much dietary fibre and tend to be lacking in nutrients.
• Get more dietary fibre
Having enough dietary fibre in your diet can help with weight management by increasing the feeling of satiety, so that you don’t feel the temptation to consume more than your body actually needs. Most fruit and vegetables are rich in fibre, and so are legumes such as beans and peas.
• Say “yes” to gut-friendly food
Your gut has a huge influence on your weight because it directly affects what nutrients are absorbed and handles the disposal of waste materials. A build-up of the latter can lead to gut toxicity which can lead to inflammation and worse. Once again, various vegetables and fruits should be at the forefront of your diet because of their prebiotic content, which allows for intestinal flora to flourish. Fermented food is also recommended due to their high probiotic content, which protects your gut from bad bacteria. Examples of such food include kimchi, greek yogurt and tempeh.
• Pack on the protein
A surplus of protein supports muscle mass retention even when in a caloric deficit. Conventional wisdom dictates 1.4 to 1.6g of protein for every kilogram of body weight for optimal muscle protein synthesis while also supplying you with enough amino acids. Aside from the physiological benefits, protein also carries a very satiating effect which is useful when it comes to suppressing the urge to snack.
“A glass of milk and 2 boiled eggs is an example of a good protein snack pre and post gym,” said Cheryl Teo, a Sport Dietitian at Singapore Sport Institute. “Adding dairy like milk, cheese and yoghurt is an easy way to bump up your protein intake at breakfast. For those the lactose intolerant, eggs are a great nutritious alternative.”
If you’re really set on keeping to a diet and reducing the number of calories you’re eating, try fasting instead – it’s been found to produce significant weight-loss results in obese individuals, has several health-boosting properties and is much kinder to your body than conventional dieting. There are several ways to adopt such a dieting style: either a “pure” fast on alternate days, for 2 out of every 7 days, or fast intermittently for 16 hours and leave an 8-hour window period for eating. Of course, nutrient density and food quality should still be a priority during the non-fasting periods or the fast won’t be as effective.
Eating habits aside, our lifestyle choices also affect our weight and should be regulated. In particular, the amount of sleep you get and the level of stress you experience play a part in weight management. Sleep affects your metabolism – which is the rate at which your body contributes food to energy – as well as your insulin sensitivity. Therefore, while it’s necessary to mind what you eat, it’s equally important to ensure that you’re getting enough sleep so that your body has the opportunity to rest and recover.
In a similar vein, stress can wreak havoc on your attempts at weight management because of its effects on appetite and cortisol levels. Given that stress-eating is such a common culprit of unplanned weight-gain, no diet should be attempted without also adopting stress management habits like meditation. Regular exercise has also been shown to be a great stress-buster, so committing to a reasonable training regimen would do well to support all your other anti-stress hacks.
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Going beyond weight-loss
Most of us consider weight to be the best indicator of how fat/healthy we are. While weight does present itself as a convenient tool that’s easily measured and can even be used to calculate other types of health data (like the body mass index), it's important to remember that they are merely tools that help you evaluate your body’s weight status and shouldn’t be treated as a be-all and end-all. because they don’t tell you anything about what’s beyond the surface.
Achieving a healthy physique isn’t purely about losing weight to fall into the acceptable weight range; you could be heavier than someone who's fatter simply due to having more muscle. Other components like muscle-to-fat ratio and bone density have a greater impact on one's health than just weight alone, so don't base your health solely around the number reflected on the scale.
As attractive as the idea of losing weight is, resorting to extreme diets that deliver results that are drastic is never a good idea. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is a long-term process, not a temporary goal that you should aim to reach as quickly as you can! If you are still unsure of how to proceed, sign up for a Fitness and Health Assessment workshop to assess your current baseline measurements to help you better decide how to progress.